Iraq's parliament approved a new speaker today, a tentative step toward forming a new government. But while Sunni Arab lawmaker Salim al-Juburi was the runaway winner of the vote, and maneuvering is underway to try to deny Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a third successive term in his post, there's no political scenario in Baghdad that could quickly address Iraq's true crisis: The collapse of its military.
In fact, it hardly matters who takes the reins at this point. While it would be hard to find a candidate less popular than Mr. Maliki among the country's Sunni Arabs and its independence-minded Kurdish minority, building an effective military is a project of years, not weeks or months.
Today, the major northern city of Mosul remains outside of government hands, as does Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein about 100 miles north of Baghdad. Government efforts to retake the city have repeatedly been repelled. While the southern edge of the city came under a withering government barrage overnight, Iraqi forces are no closer to retaking it and control of the highway that stretches north to the Shiite shrine city of Samarra and ultimately Mosul.
The stunning collapse of Iraq's military in the face of Sunni jihadi forces was a consequence of the sectarian policies of the past decade. These fostered the promotion of incompetent Shiite officers on the basis of loyalty to Maliki, and a military culture filled with greed and corruption. In the north, Sunni Arab troops were often led by Shiite commanders who treated their supporters like dirt. For a fee paid to officers, soldiers were allowed to eschew duty and seek other work.
The New York Times reported a classified US military assessment of Iraq's security forces earlier this week that suggests no quick turnaround to take on the motivated, well-armed, and committed insurgency. Much of the Iraqi army is pretty much beyond help, in the US assessment.
The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.
Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jim Dubik, formerly in charge of training Iraqi forces and now a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, told the Financial Times that Iraqi forces are incapable of retaking lost territory at the moment.
"[Iraqi Security Forces] are capable of limited defensive actions. And in some areas they are capable of limited but not sustained counterattacks," he said. "But what they are totally incapable of planning, preparing or conducting is a counteroffensive of any kind against [the Islamic State] that will push them back and retake territory from the insurgency."
Shiite militias had been largely quiet in recent years, or at least absorbed into positions at the Interior Ministry where they answered to Maliki. Now they are reforming and raring to fight. And their corrupting presence in what was supposed to be a national army is well known.
Adam Silverman, a cultural adviser at the US Army War College, writes of the long history of Shiite militias aligned with major national political parties infiltrating the army and the police. Sunni officers were displaced, no matter how competent or loyal, and during the height of the sectarian violence that prevailed in the mid 2000s, Shiite-led forces participated in massacring and torturing Sunni Arabs. The bloodletting remade the demographics of Baghdad and other mixed cities in their favor.
Mr. Silverman particularly points to the role of the Badr Corps, a militia loyal to the Supreme Islamic Council for Iraq (ISCI), one of the country's major Shiite parties, that has received extensive support from Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
There were some good reasons to bring the Badr guys into the Iraqi Security Forces. Namely the same ones for bringing parts of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Awakenings/Sons of Iraq folks. Specifically to facilitate societal reconciliation and coalition building. That the Badr Corps and the Pesh were brought in and the Awakenings/Sons of Iraq largely locked out, shows exactly how far that reconciliation went, which was certainly not far enough. Instead the transition for the Awakenings/Sons of Iraq was short circuited in 2008 - same year the Iraqis rolled us on the provincial elections and the SOFA negotiations - by PM Maliki demanding and being granted control over the transition program for the Sons of Iraq.
The "Sons of Iraq" or the "Awakening" were the Sunni Arab tribal fighters who sided with the central government and the US during the "surge" in 2007 and 2008. These Sunni Arabs turned the tide against jihadis in exchange for promises of money, employment, and better treatment from the central government.
Maliki reneged on these promises, and many of the Sunni fighters ended up dead or in jail, either at the hands of insurgents or the government. Some of the men fighting today alongside the self-styled "Islamic State" were formerly on the side of the government – a stunning example of squandered gains.
Shiite militias are not simply interested in fighting against the Sunni Arab uprising. During the US occupation of Iraq, Shiite militias like Badr and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army also participated in the murder and intimidation of Iraqis for vice crimes. Over the weekend, around 30 women and 2 men in an alleged whorehouse not far from Baghdad's largest Shiite district were murdered by unidentified assailants; many in Baghdad suspect the killings were carried out by one of the Shiite militias.
Reports from Baghdad suggest that a deal on forming the government could be in reach and mark an end to Maliki's tenure. But reforming the Iraqi army? That's simply not happening any time soon. And that means the latest iteration of Iraq's 11-year-old war will continue.